John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century

William Stacy Johnson Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville May 14, 2009

Johnson offers a lively introduction to the life and teachings of John Calvin for those who know little about the Geneva Reformer. As Arthur M. Adams associate professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Johnson owes much of his theological heritage to Calvin. He seeks to mine the rich lessons in Calvin and to interpret them for a new generation (p. viii). His goal is not to propagate a rigid, systematized version of Calvin’s theology but to reawaken the spirit of the Reformer for today’s Christians by concluding each chapter with a section entitled “Always Reforming.” A glossary and a short list of suggested readings are included.

Johnson begins by recounting Calvin’s extraordinary, sometimes tumultuous life. The following chapters (2–11) summarize and apply key elements of his theology: “Calvin’s Vision of God”; “Grace Alone, Christ Alone, Faith Alone”; “Wellspring of Reform: Scripture Alone”; “Chosen and Called: Election and Predestination”; “The Workings of Sin and Salvation”; “Participation in God’s Ways: The Power of the Spirit”; “What Does God Require of Us? Law and Gospel”; “The Church: Meaning, Ministry, and Mission”; “Connecting to God: Worship and Sacraments”; and “Politics, Economy, and Society.” The doctrines follow an order similar to The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The concluding chapter 12, “Reformed and Always Reforming,” recapitulates the previous studies and urges continuous revision.

Johnson selects relevant aspects of Calvin’s thought, summarizes them briefly, and relates them to readers. Johnson disagrees with Calvin’s double predestination, conveying instead that election should remind individuals that their lives can make a difference to God, and that God’s people are blessed in order to be a blessing to others.

With such a “digestible” book it is inevitable that Johnson would diminish or omit certain concepts for the sake of space. His synopsis of the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints,” for example, is reduced to “once saved, always saved” (p. 60)—hardly fair to Calvin’s careful thought on this topic. Elsewhere the author states his belief that there are errors in the Bible, and he states that Calvin willingly admitted as much (pp. 35–36, 122)—a view contested by many. The book targets a moderate Presbyterian audience, and conservative readers may question some of the author’s own views.

This book is an informed, practical work that reaffirms the place of the Geneva Reformer for today and the decades to come.

—Isaac Mann with J. Scott Horrell

July 1, 2011

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2011 vol. 168 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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